In the midst of a pandemic that has made me more risk averse than I have ever been, I am witness to a standard of longevity that stands as a monument to tenacity and grace. This week, my Dad, who survived Iwo Jima among a series of Pacific battles that engaged the 4th Marine Division, will turn 100.
When I was growing up, my chain-smoking Dad was the last person I would have thought would live to a ripe old age. I am pretty confident that I never saw my Dad participate in athletic activity when I lived at home, unless you count yelling at Little League umpires. He never worked out between the ages of 30 and 70. He was not careful about what he ate or drank. He was just my Dad, and not anyone you would think of as an icon.
Today, he is one of the most popular people on the third floor of the Isle at Watercrest, still getting around with his walker and, whenever possible, refusing help. But for the last four months, this has been invisible to us, and we have relied on others to provide all of his care and comfort. We are the outsiders, banned from visiting because of the COVID threat to residents.
I would give anything to sit across the room from him in the reading chair that I bought when he moved here a year and a half ago. We would have a meandering conversation about life in Pennsylvania shooting rabbits with his father, or coming of age in Baltimore, or the war. None of the discussion would involve politics or the Astros, as it might have a decade or less ago.
We would look at pictures of Mom on the wall, gone three decades now, but very much alive in his heart still. Next year Linda and I will pass the number of years given to my parents together, but I can guarantee you that the fire still burns bright for my Dad, and it gives me hope that we can continue to kindle something that our kids and grandkids will use in the years ahead to warm their lives.
The pictures in his room also include frozen moments in time of my parents just after the war, and then with one, two, and three children. The last of these is my first birthday, on the porch in Baltimore in my Mom’s arms with me wearing a classic birthday hat, with my two older brothers looking mildly disinterested. I have not seen these pictures for four months because of COVID. But I see them clearly in my mind, and they connect me to my Dad in ways that are hard to describe.
One day, I suppose, similar pictures will hang above my recliner in a similar place, telling a story of days already long ago in which my life was formed and shaped. And my children and grandchildren will, I hope, visit long enough to have that unique mixture of sadness and sweetness that goes with encountering life at the stage where the battery is flashing.
But amidst the long, slow decline, we have this amazing moment. 100. How could it be that he could have gotten to this point, and that he still acts as if the road goes on forever? This man who has witnessed over 40 percent of the history of our nation, who was born just after World War I and the flu pandemic and while Woodrow Wilson was still president, soldiers on in the summer of COVID. And he does it without a single visitor, though we are chomping at the bit to be with him.
All the cultural battles being fought today are the culmination of history he has witnessed. When I was young, it felt like I could never make him happy. Now, he never complains, unless you try to help him. When I talk to him, one of his most common phrases is, “So be it.” It is a mix of resignation and contentment. After Mom died, he spent almost thirty years alone in the home I grew up in. I suppose he is as prepared as anyone I know to be alone in this pandemic, and I am pretty certain that he is content with the periodic visits throughout the day from his caregivers.
But, if I am being honest, I am not. I want to see my Dad, and hug his neck, and let him know face-to-face how much I love him. I almost never talk to him without him telling me how proud he is of me. How many men my age are hearing that? How many men of any age are hearing that?
I have the voice of my father telling me I am worthwhile for one more day. I do not take this day for granted.
I love you, Dad. Here’s to you. 100.